Updated: Dec 6, 2019
What would you think if, when drinking in a London Tavern, a dubious looking character who had been staring at your face while sketching, came over with the sketch and you saw that they had drawn exactly what you were just thinking? Honoured? Overwhelmed? Or terrified? I imagine it would depend on whether that sketcher was the Prince of Darkness himself, satanic ‘Beast’ Aleister Crowley. According to local legend, the master of the occult did exactly this to young poet Dylan Thomas in The Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia. Thomas was freaked out by the way Crowley had got into his head and stayed away from the area for quite some time afterwards! He braved it back there though, as this was where in 1936 he met the feisty Caitlin Macnamara who became his drinking partner and wife.
Fitzrovia is the name coined in the 1930s for the Bohemian area of central London surrounded by Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Soho.
Where many famous poets, writers and colourful characters with unconventional lifestyles, were weaving their way in and out of each others lives and making their homes.
Artists such as painter of nudes Walter Sickert, portrait artist Augustus John and sculptor Jacob Epstein created a vibrant, interwoven tapestry of experimental life in the region for the first half of the 20th Century.
Fitzroy Square was built by architect Robert Adam between 1790 and the 1830s, as a circle of fine houses within a square. The buildings were elegant but the area was otherwise run-down at the time and attracted many an eccentric character.
Celebrated writers Virginia Woolf and George Orwell lived at 29 Fitzroy Square, although at different times and Roger Fry, the printmaker and critic was their neighbour, he found his inspirational Omega Workshops at No. 33. The timeless ‘Modernist’ Omega designs for interiors, ceramics, wallpapers and textiles were used to decorate almost every surface at Charleston House, the East Sussex country home of Duncan Grant and Virginia Bell and the meeting place of 'Bloomsbury Set' artists, writers and thinkers including Woolf, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes, with the Bloomsbury area at the otherside of Tottenham Court Road being considered a lot more well-to-do than down at heel Fitzrovia.
Nancy Cunard. Oil painting on tin by Mandie Stone
Troubled and rebellious socialite and political activist Nancy Cunard (1896-1965) lived in Fitzrovia and was hailed a Queen of the Jazz Age in the 1920s. Her mother Maud ‘Emerald’ Cunard was the heiress of the famous Cunard shipping company.
Those with an alternative lifestyle chose this area as it was more affordable than other parts of London. Here the louche, loud ‘glitterarti’ and ‘literarti’ found their tribe and would intellectualise, socialise and collaborate on artistic endeavours in public houses such as the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street.
Olga Lehmann was a prolific painter, mural artist and illustrator for publications including the Radio Times and studied under the tutelage of Henry Tonks at Slade School of Art in Gower Street. She met Dylan Thomas as a drinking partner in one of the Fitzrovia public houses and collaborated with him as an artist by illustrating his album cover for the Under Milk Wood release on the Argo record label.
She was also art-partners with painter Gilbert Wood, who himself was rumoured to be an inspiration for George Orwell in 1984 due to his phobia of rats. Olga Lehmann was loosely connected with Aleister Crowley through family friend Lady Frieda Harris, who illustrated Crowley’s Thoth Tarot Deck which is still very popular with occultists today. In keeping with the mystical connections of the area, magic and spiritualism are celebrated in the Treadwell Bookshop at 33 Store Street, Fitzrovia, a specialist bookshop filled with magical and mysterious tomes as well as offering a programme of workshops and talks on all things Tarot and other esoteric subjects…….enter into the unknown….........!
One hell of a hell-raiser in the Fitzrovian set was ‘Tiger Woman’ Betty May, the self-styled Gypsy: a singer, dancer and model who apparently got her nickname from her association with criminal gangs while on the Paris cabaret circuit. Although she would say that she gave the name to herself due to her ‘feline features’ and was sometimes seen on all fours sipping her alcohol from a saucer.
May was believed to have been born in the slums of 19th Century East London, leaving for the bright lights of the West End proud of her coster-monger background, searching for Bohemia, finding her scene and becoming notorious in decadent, debauched Fitzrovian life. Her social circle included aristocrats, pimps, artists, poets and for a while, the occultist Aleister Crowley, who according to local legend, she had a precarious relationship with. It is said that she only really got on well with him when they went rock climbing together in Sicily. What goes up, must come down.....and their relationship was certainly to go downhill before long…………
As a self-confessed cocaine addict, Betty May would cause uproar with her performances at parties in the Fitzroy Tavern. As a cabaret artist, most popular with the crowds was her rendition of ‘Raggle-Taggle Gypsy’ a traditional folk song about a rich lady who runs away to live a free-spirited life with the Gypsies.|
Her unique, charismatic style inspired by Gypsy culture included wearing a bright handkerchief in her hair and with her body wrapped in a rainbow of colourful fabric remnants purchased from Soho’s Berwick Street market. May's all singing-all dancing show involved her taking her home-made skirt off and swirling it around, much to the delight of her adoring audience.
Betty May (Bust by Jacob Epstein) Aleister Crowley, notorious as The Wickedest Man in the World.
Another Fitzrovian creating the Gypsy look for his own life, having spent time experimenting with living on the road and in Gypsy encampments, was the artist Augustus John. His ensemble included a black silk scarf adorned with an antique Grecian brooch, gold ear-rings dangling, a velvet trimmed coat and a time-worn, artfully battered hat that could have been straight from a Gypsy etching by printmaker Jacques Callot. John described himself as ‘a child of nature and a Lord of the Universe’. Proudly stating:
‘I am a Bohemian’.
Fitzrovia's 'Tiger Woman' also performed at Wally’s, an underground nightclub in Fitzroy Street, a place often visited by Soho gangsters and the regular haunt of murderer Douglas Burton. His victim was Douglas Bose, boyfriend of the artist's model Sylvia Gough (who often sat for Augustus John as his lover and muse). Burton's explanation for murdering Bose, was that he had been driven insane due to his unrequited love for performer Betty May who he was always so sure would someday be his. Alas, he had been let down by her, when she didn’t turn up for a date she promised him. Could this have made Tiger Woman something of a ‘Femme Fatale’? She certainly lived a life full of scandal and all becomes more apparent in her 'ghost written' autobiography Tiger Woman.
Betty May had a tricky relationship with the enigma that was Aleister Crowley and it worsened when her third husband, poet Raoul Loveday, who was interested in the ‘Beast’s’ magical practices, was offered a job by him. Crowley promised that by working with him, Loveday would be lifted away from the vagabonds that May attracted to the squalor of what Crowley called their filthy marital home in Fitzroy Street.
Raoul Loveday’s relationship with Crowley was unfortunately where he met his fate. Loveday lost his life while doing magical training with Crowley at his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily after apparently getting Malaris from drinking the water from a stream that Crowley had warned him about. Betty May believed otherwise. She had also become a member of the Abbey and visited Sicily and came to the conclusion that her husband had died in a more sinister way, in the company of Crowley after participating in a sacrificial ritual involving a cat. Is it any wonder he was known as ‘The wickedest man in the world?
Crowley’s magical practices were often inspired by Ancient Egypt. He travelled there on honeymoon with his wife Rose and they stayed overnight in the Kings Chamber of the Great Pyramid. His famous Book of Law has chapters dedicated to the Egyptian cults of Nuit, Hadit and Horus. The Age of Horus is depicted in the Thoth Tarot deck as the Aeon card, showing the throned Horus in the centre of the card. In 1922 everyone seemed to go crazy for Ancient Egypt when Howard Carter discovered boy king Tutankhamun’s Tomb and well into the 1930s society absorbed all things Egyptian, which perhaps explains something about why these Queens of Bohemia were lured towards Crowley’s mystical learnings and beliefs and perhaps spiritually entranced by the mysteries of the pyramids………
In 1911 Welsh painter, illustrator and designer Nina Hamnett rebelled against her middle-class background and threw herself into the Fitzrovian art scene, living on money she had inherited from aunts and an uncle and for most of the time, living in extreme poverty, making her a Bohemian in the truest sense of the word as was depicted in Henry Muger’s ‘Scenes de la Vie de Boheme’. At first she and Betty May were rivals but this was to change when they found they had a love of parties in common. Hamnett was sued for libel by Aleister Crowley in 1934 after she had referred to Raoul Loveday’s death and the cat incident in Sicily in print. Subsequently, she became well known in the newspapers. Nina Hamnett spent many years in Fitzrovia, she had a wide circle of noteable friends and was hailed as the uncrowned ‘Queen of Bohemia’ due to her popularity, talent and exuberant personality. A celebrity of the times.
Portrait of Nina Hamnett by Roger Fry.
Queen of Fitzrovia Nina Hamnett had first met Queen of Soho, Betty May in Paris. The two women who were often broke due to their excessive lifestyles, seized their opportunity to gain an income and sued Fleet Street newspapers for libel after the pair were confused for each other in a published photograph and caption. They blew the compensation they both received by splashing out on a party for all of their friends, in the Fitzroy Tavern, with an open bar tab. It lasted for a whole day and night, leaving the two up-for-anything ladies penniless again once the celebrations were over. How deliriously decadent! Typical Bohemians and true Fitzrovians.
Long live the outrageous legends of the Queens of Bohemia!
A rove around Fitzrovia today will leave the visitor with a sense of the louche, laidback Bohemian charm of inter-war London. There are plenty of tea and coffeeshops, bookshops, Michelin starred fine dining restaurants and not forgetting, Italia Uno in Charlotte Street, reputed to be one of the most authentic Italian cafés in London. In Scala Street you will find the quirky and weird Pollock’s Toy Museum to take you back in time and at 24 Rathbone Place, the wonderful Hobgoblin musical instrument store.
The British Museum, in nearby Great Russell Street is a treasure trove of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, holding the largest collection outside of Egypt and is well worth taking time out to explore.
In 2022 it will be 100 years since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb and if you haven’t had enough of your Egyptian fix at the British Museum, then you can get yourself over to Duke of York Square in Chelsea where until May 2020, the Saatchi Gallery are showing a centenary celebration exhibition: ‘Tutankhamun. Treasures of the Golden Pharoah’. Displaying over 150 authentic pieces discovered in the tomb. See them before they finally go back to Egypt forever.
Words by Mandie Stone